Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

  • Mood:

For all that water ...

... someone would surely attempt to mine it, and a quasar is a dangerous place to go mining for precious materials.  And it's water, so you just sort of have to  wonder if anything lives in it.  Hmm, could be a story in this.


Astronomers Find Largest, Most Distant Reservoir of Water

Two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. The water, equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in the world's ocean, surrounds a huge, feeding black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away.

"The environment around this quasar is very unique in that it's producing this huge mass of water," said Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times." Bradford leads one of the teams that made the discovery. His team's research is partially funded by NASA and appears in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole that steadily consumes a
surrounding disk of gas and dust. As it eats, the quasar spews out huge
amounts of energy. Both groups of astronomers studied a particular
quasar
called APM 08279+5255, which harbors a black hole 20 billion times more
massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion
suns.

Astronomers expected water vapor to be present even in the early,
distant
universe, but had not detected it this far away before. There's water
vapor
in the Milky Way, although the total amount is 4,000 times less than in
the
quasar, because most of the Milky Way's water is frozen in ice.

Water vapor is an important trace gas that reveals the nature of the
quasar.
In this particular quasar, the water vapor is distributed around the
black
hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years in size (a
light-year is about six trillion miles). Its presence indicates that the
quasar is bathing the gas in X-rays and infrared radiation, and that the
gas
is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas
is
at a chilly minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius) and
is
300 trillion times less dense than Earth's atmosphere, it's still five
times
hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what's typical in galaxies like
the
Milky Way.

Measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon
monoxide, suggest there is enough gas to feed the black hole until it
grows
to about six times its size. Whether this will happen is not clear, the
astronomers say, since some of the gas may end up condensing into stars
or
might be ejected from the quasar.

Bradford's team made their observations starting in 2008, using an
instrument called "Z-Spec" at the California Institute of Technology's
Submillimeter Observatory, a 33-foot (10-meter) telescope near the summit
of
Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Follow-up observations were made with the Combined
Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of
radio
dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

The second group, led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in
physics
at Caltech and deputy director of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory,
used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water.
In
2010, Lis's team serendipitously detected water in APM 8279+5255,
observing
one spectral signature. Bradford's team was able to get more information
about the water, including its enormous mass, because they detected
several
spectral signatures of the water.

Other authors on the Bradford paper, "The water vapor spectrum of APM
08279+5255," include Hien Nguyen, Jamie Bock, Jonas Zmuidzinas and Bret
Naylor of JPL; Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland, College
Park;
Phillip Maloney, Jason Glenn and Julia Kamenetzky of the University of
Colorado, Boulder; James Aguirre, Roxana Lupu and Kimberly Scott of the
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Hideo Matsuhara of the
Institute
of Space and Astronautical Science in Japan; and Eric Murphy of the
Carnegie
Institute of Science, Pasadena.

Funding for Z-Spec was provided by the National Science Foundation,
NASA,
the Research Corporation and the partner institutions.

Caltech manages JPL for NASA. More information about JPL is online at
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov .

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

- end -

Tags: news, science, space exploration
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